By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
The Rolling Stones may be celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, but that famous rock ‘n’ roll band is no match for a couple of real rolling stones inside historic Prater’s Mill in Varnell.
You see, the two stones we’re talking about are made of granite — millstones that are the key components in a vintage mill that’s been used to grind corn into meal for more than 100 years in rural Whitfield County.
But just like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the two millstones in the water-driven Munson Mill at Prater’s Mill were beginning to show their age after decades of use. You might even say they were in need of an “Extreme Makeover.”
That’s where John Lovett and Roger Rollins come on stage.
Lovett, who’s recognized nationally as one of just a handful of experts when it comes to repairing millstones, came to Prater’s Mill in November to help Rollins perform some tedious work to bring the stones back to life.
“This mill is the oldest working piece of equipment in Prater’s Mill,” Rollins explained. “Since it is so old, we need it to be safe and last a long time.”
Basically, the Munson Mill produces cornmeal by grinding kernels of corn between two millstones that are 36 inches in diameter and weigh about 800 to 1,000 pounds each. The bottom stone, called a runner stone, spins quickly while the top stone, called the bed stone, rests a fraction of an inch above it. When the corn is dumped in-between the two stones through a hopper that rests over a hole in the center of the bed stone, the kernels are gradually crushed into meal as they make their way to the outer edge through a series of channels.
“The bottom stone, remember, is rapidly turning,” Rollins said, “and there are grooves cut into the stone. The kernels of corn work their way out into these grooves, and as the grooves get closer together, the stones will begin to cut the kernels into little pieces. As the corn gets out toward the edge, that’s where you want the real grinding to be done, where the fairly close tolerance needs to be.”
At Prater’s Mill, however, the two stones were hitting each other, causing a “thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump” sound on every rotation.
“And we were wearing slick spots,” Rollins said, “because in order to get the proper grind, we had to bring the bottom stone up to a point where we knew we were hurting the stones by having stone to stone contact, which is really not desirable. Ideally, the two stones almost but not quite touch.”
It took Lovett and Rollins about three hours one recent rainy day to separate the two stones, leaving them face up next to each other as the tedious repair work began.
Not many folks are qualified to tackle that stage, but Prater’s Mill is lucky to have an expert like Lovett nearby in Belvidere, Tenn., to take care of the job, Rollins said.
“John’s a priceless resource for us and has been a good friend of Prater’s Mill for a long time,” Rollins said as he watched Lovett lightly bang, bang, bang on the runner stone with a device called a mill pick or a mill hammer as he performed the task of sharpening or “dressing” the mill stones.
“We started on this one yesterday evening and finished it this morning,” Lovett said as he used the mill hammer to peck at the stone carefully. “We have some iron oxide dye that we run over the face of the stone to see if we have any high spots. The red dye sticks to the high spots that are still on the stone, and what we’re trying to achieve is sort of an even distribution of the dye on about the outer six inches or so of the stone.”
Their efforts eventually paid off.
“I think that you’d agree we’ve gotten some improvement all the way through here,” Rollins said to Lovett, who nodded his head.
Then came the task of putting the two stones back together again, work that took until nearly dark that day. But they had the satisfaction of knowing they had succeeded in breathing new life into the vintage equipment at the mill.
“They’re definitely not making the same clunk that they used to,” Rollins said, “Of course, it’s almost impossible to get these heavy stones perfect. This is not precision engineering — and never was. But as it is right now, we’ve got it significantly better than it was. We feel like we can live with what we’ve got now for years.”
Ironically, the repair efforts took longer to complete than the time the mill is actually turned on and used each year.
“It runs two times a year — the two days for the country fair,” Rollins said.
He points across the room to the recently restored Meadows Mill, which is used more frequently now to show visitors how cornmeal is ground using a mill because of the convenience of its modern electric motor.
Still, Rollins is obviously proud of the water-driven Munson Mill, though it’s harder to crank up and operate and leaves quite a mess underneath it every time it’s used.
“The Munson was a mainstay at Prater’s Mill for a very long time,” he said, “because that’s the same mill that was used to run cornmeal through when I was a kid in the ’50s. So it sat there and ran solid for 70, 80 years … and it’s still running today.”
That respect for the past is one reason why Rollins and many others volunteer their time at Prater’s Mill. In fact, just last year Rollins himself repaired the turbine that helps create the power to run the Munson Mill.
“That turbine was really a critical piece of Prater’s Mill,” he said.
If you stand outside on the deck on the right side of the mill, you’re atop the forebay, a pool of water that has a concrete bottom that houses the 36-inch-wide turbine that has 12 gates.
“When you open those gates,” Rollins explains, “water rushes into the turbine from all sides. You remember having a pinwheel as a kid? This works the same way. You blow on a pinwheel and it has little veins that catch the air from you and make the pinwheel begin to spin. Well, the water rushing in makes the turbine gates spin, and there’s a shaft coming out of the forebay. There’s a pulley on top of the shaft, a belt around the pulley, the belt goes over to the pulley and that makes the Munson Mill turn.”
Unfortunately, only eight of the 12 gates were functional before Rollins’ repair efforts last year.
Now that both mills have been repaired, Rollins says the Prater’s Mill Foundation is compiling a list of other items that need to be fixed, “but a lot of the really troublesome things have been taken care of now.”